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Finely painted wooden clapper carved in the image of an orca - Donald Ellis Gallery


Northern British Columbia

ca. 1840-1860

wood, paint, fibre

width: 10 ¼"

Inventory # N2978-16



acquired by the Scottish Reverend Robert J. Dundas from Anglican lay minister William Duncan in 1863 at the village of Metlakatla, British Columbia
by descent in the family
Simon Carey, London, England
Sotheby’s New York, Oct 5, 2006, lot 15

The present clapper was acquired by the Scottish Reverend Robert J. Dundas from the English lay missionary William Duncan on a trip to Canada in 1863. In 1862, Duncan had established a model Church of England mission at Old Metlakatla, an abandoned settlement near Prince Rupert, B.C. Dundas acquired almost 80 objects from Duncan, including crest helmets, rattles and antler clubs which remained in the Dundas family for several generations.

Clappers, like rattles, are made of two pieces of hard wood, each hollowed out until quite thin in order to amplify the resonance of the instruments. Instead of using percussive elements such as small pebbles, glass beads, or lead shot on the inside like a rattle, each side of a clapper is thinly carved in the handle area behind the hollowed sculptural image. A much thicker grip section is left at the end of the handle, where the two sides of the instrument are bound together. This enables the two halves of the clapper to vibrate against each other as the instrument is rapidly shaken, creating a "clapping" sound. Clappers are also generally smaller and narrower than most rattles, such as the well-known raven rattle, or other related types of bird rattles. The clapper tradition appears to have a long history, judging by the existence of some early examples that most likely date from the eighteenth century (see Holm, 1984, Box of Daylight, pg. 29, fig. 21, which was identified at that time as Tlingit, and early nineteenth century). Other known clappers appear to date from the first half of the nineteenth century, between about 1820 and 1850, based on the styles of carving and design with which they were made. (See Brown, 1998, pg. 87, fig. 4.42, and Brown, 1995, pg. 166, fig. 62).

It is said that the Tsimshian secret dancing society known as the MitLa (Dancers) carried clappers instead of rattles. Other northern First Nations like the Haida appear to have made some clappers that survive in museums, though very few if any clappers are known to have originated among the Tlingit.

This example more clearly represents a whale, but exactly which type is unknown. There are no teeth in the mouth, and the dorsal fin is not large, suggesting that it may not depict an orca. The shape of the head is more blunt and elongated than an orca as well, and may indicate that a baleen type of whale, like a humpback, is the subject of this clapper. Again the red-on-black has been used over the body, and only the head and pectoral fins feature formline designs.